Natalya Orzheklovskaya
ESL 91
Spring, 2000

Essay Topic: Discuss the interaction of language and culture in terms of the theory expressed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. Do you agree with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis regarded as a valid theory of language?

Culture and language are two very close conceptions. They are interconnected and develop in dependence from each other. It means that cultural changes lead to the appearance of new words and new definitions of events. On the other hand, language innovations identify changes of culture of thought among different members of society, influence on their behavior. So language determines our culture and reflects reality.

Linguistics and anthropologists recognize the importance of language to a culture or people. One theory in understanding the connection of language to culture is to consider language as a reflection of reality. Two early linguists, Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf, theorized that language determines culture. According to their theory, known as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, members of different cultures see the world differently because they draw upon different linguistic categories to interpret it.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis uncovers the idea of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism specifies that there is a close relationship between the structure of a language and the culture that uses that language. Edward Sapir was a great linguist and anthropologist. He was interested in cultural behaviorism and the development of personality, and saw language as a verbal symbol of human relations. Dr. Sapir had thousands of students over his short career. His influence on them was so profound that many of his former students put together a collection of their essays based on his studies, and dedicated them to him.

One very famous student and disciple of Sapir was Benjamin Lee Whorf. Through his life, Whorf was a chemical engineer, a linguist, and an anthropologist. Under the supervision of Edward Sapir, Whorf worked as an undergraduate at Yale University. Whorf studied linguistics as a way to create an understanding of how language worked. He related culture and actions to language and this later became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis consists of two different parts: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. Linguistic relativity uncovered the idea that culture is shaped by language. Linguistic determination is the argument that language directly effects that way that people think about the world and how they see the world. It means that our thoughts are based on the language that we speak and the words that we use. In other words, linguistic determinism is the point that language determines thought. So we can conclude that people can think only about objects, events, and processes through the symbolized language that they speak.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also explains the attitude between different languages and thought. Different cultures understand and appreciate the world in different ways. Sapir wrote in his scientific work “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds with different labels attached. (Sapir 1958[1929], p.69 from The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Daniel Chandler) This position was developed and supported by student of Sapir Benjamin Whorf, who added “…the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. (Whorf 1940, p. 213-14 from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Daniel Chandler).

Most linguists study the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Some of them explain why they support this theory; some of them agree with definite aspects of the hypothesis; some of them reject the conclusions of Sapir and Whorf. In generally all linguists agree that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has important points, but many situations continue to be questionable, and some definitions are incomplete. That gives the possibility for a large amount of interpretation.

For example, the linguists Daniel Chandler and George Grace belief that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is significant but they feel that it isn’t applicable to all situations. Daniel Chandler admits that language influences thought, but doesn’t believe that it determines thought. George Grace doesn’t believe that a very close relationship exists between thought and language. He believes that language plays some role in determining thought, but he de-emphasizes the link between the two.

These are only two examples of the understanding of this theory. I think, this hypothesis has undoubted value because it has existed almost a century, and scientists continue to have interest to it, take it as the basis for their discoveries and conclusions. Scientists continue to argue, agree or not, complement or deny. The debate about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis will likely continue to be a struggle between opposing viewpoints. This debate will probably never be settled because the hypothesis can be interpreted in many ways.

The sociolinguistic aspect is absolutely obvious in Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Some people use this theory to justify racist ideas regarding the supposed superiority or inferiority of specific cultures. For example, one language has seven names for one color; another language has only two colors. Racists tried to explain it as not enough development of language which leads to backwardness of culture and therefore to inferiority of this culture. Some people tried to give answers to questions like: Do specific properties of “Black English” hinder the education of American blacks? Do the lack of a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun in English, and the default of grammatical person to masculine forms enhance inequality between the sexes and cause sexual stereotyping? For these controversial ideas to be true, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis must be true. Questions have arisen in other fields that seem related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. They are most notably in the computer industry. Would a ‘natural-language-like’ interface between computers and people increase the understanding of computers and productivity of their users?


I agree partly with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I agree with the statement of this theory that language we use determines how we experience the world and how we express that experience. The case of the girl named Genie confirms this aspect. Her crazy father had kept Genie isolated in a locked room from the time she was nearly two until she was 13 years old. She never got solid food. Genie’s father severely punished her for making any vocal sounds. When Genie was found her behavior was subhuman. Her physical, social, and language skills were practically absent. She couldn’t stand erect, run, manipulate objects; she didn’t know how to chew, or go to the bathroom. She was abnormally silent and couldn’t utter human sounds. Genie didn’t have experience of social life and language. The girl’s sounds were so much like animal sounds because her father made barking sounds and growled at her. So she had only this experience and could express her experience only in this way.

Another example is my own experience. From my early childhood I have recognized the world in two different languages. I can speak the Ukrainian and Russian languages perfectly. So I express my experience in two languages. I want to note that I understand the world absolutely in the same way independently of what language I speak. It means that when I speak the Russian language I understand processes, objects, etc. in the same way as when I speak Ukrainian language.

I don’t agree with the part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that different countries perceive the world in different ways. For example, new words appeared in the Russian language after Perestroyka. Our socialistic way of life started to change to the way of capitalistic development. Changes in our political, economic, and social structure led to the appearance of new words. We started to use words like ‘investigation’, ‘marketing’, etc. in our language. We use and understand these words in the same way as people from countries where English language is a native language. If Sapir and Whorf were true in this aspect, I wouldn’t be able to understand the meanings of these words and use them.

We can have different understanding of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. We can agree or disagree with it. We can debate. But I think that this theory has made an important contribution to the development of linguistics. This hypothesis showed a close interconnection between culture and language and uncovered interesting and useful points and views on the development of culture and language. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is very close to our real life. Therefore interest in this theory will continue because the hypothesis can be interpreted in many ways.


Chandler Daniel. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis [Online]

Current Interpretations of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis [Online]

Lecture notes, 1/31/00: Linguistics 210 “ The Power of Words” [Online]

Pines Maya. “The Civilizing of Genie.” Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology. Loretta F. Kasper, Ed. New York: Whittier, 1997.

[Online]. Edward Sapir

[Online]. Benjamin Whorf

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